DOJ Orders Cleveland Cops to Stop Hitting People on Head with Guns - Among Other Brutal Practices

The Department of Justice is placing a very big bet that one of America's most notorious big city police departments—in Cleveland, Ohio—can be reformed from the inside out.


On Tuesday, Vanita Gupta, the DOJ’s top civil rights prosecutor, Northeast Ohio U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams announced a 110-page agreement to reel in the department’s out-of-control cops and create a new culture of police accountability in the city.

The police will be barred from using force against people who yell at them; barred from using using neck holds; barred from beating or using tasers against people who are handcuffed or restrained; barred from hitting people in the heads with hard objects—including the butts of their guns; prohibited from using any unauthorized weapon, its "Use of Force" section said.

They are not to pull guns or point them to threaten people randomly—including firing warning shots. They cannot fire guns at cars that are driving away. They have to file reports when guns are pointed, possibly subjecting those cops to disiplinary action. Even though each officer will be required to get 16 hours of training to "teach proper techniques for unholstering, displaying, pointing and aiming a firearm, and determining when it is appropriate to do so," the agreement's "Firearms" section said these standards don't apply to officers in drug, gang, homocide, domestic violence and financial crime units.

“We have listened,” Dettelbach said. “The number of substantive real reforms that are in this agreement is staggering. This is detailed. This is real stuff.”

Overall, the settlement will force Cleveland’s police to address: racial profiling and biases; unconstitutional stops, searches and siezures; widespread use of excessive force, including reviewing all arrests where it is used; dealing with the mentally ill, including new 24/7 health services; and new community-based accountability, including civilian oversight boards. It will be overseen by a federal judge.

“This is not a program. It becomes part of our DNA,” Mayor Jackson said. “This is a defining moment… who we are as a people and who we are as a city.”

“The central component is community relations,” Chief Williams said. “We have to have a better relationship with our community. If we get that done, all the other stuff is easy.”

Whether the DOJ’s blueprint to restructure the department will work is anybody’s guess. The Cleveland police were the subject of a similar—though not as extensive—DOJ suit and settlement almost a dozen years ago, which, over time, was almost entirely ignored, according the Department’s 2014 assessment of its out-of-control policing.

“The challenges that caused this agreement, that this agreement addresses, they didn’t arise in a day and we are not going to get rid of them overnight,” Dettelbach said at the press conference, acknowledging that the public has ample reasons to be skeptical.

Cleveland’s agreement is the DOJ’s latest legal settlement with a major city to attempt to change a police culture where racial profiling, disregard for constitutional rights, and use of excessive force is taken for granted inside police ranks and is almost always ignored when challenged by victims in court. The Obama administration has opened nearly two dozen civil rights investigations into police departments across the country, which are typically the basis for settlements imposing conditions on those departments. Almost every high-profile police brutality case—from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland—has sparked an investigation.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Cleveland’s record is as bad as anywhere. This past week, an Ohio judge acquitted a white Cleveland Officer, Michael Brelo, of manslaugher after he fired 15 shots standing atop the hood of a car that killed the unarmed driver and passenger, both Black, after a long car chase in 2012. Last November, police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in a park. In another case that month, Tanisha Anderson, 37, died after she was tied up and placed on the pavement.

These cases, which have all made headlines, are the tip of the iceberg. Last December, the DOJ presented its findings after more than a year-long investigation that described many street cops as armed predators and their supervisors as expecting that behavior and not wanting to hear about its consequences. The department had a pattern of excessive force, of using maximim force regardless of whether it was warranted, and facing little accountability for brutalizing the public, the Department said in a 59-page report. Cops were neither trained nor inclined to de-escalate confrontations, viewed their beats as war zones and routinely covered up their actions. Moreover, these trends were not new, the DOJ said, because a decade before that December report the DOJ sued Cleveland for similar behavior—and made the city agree to another settlement to reform its police.

After the DOJ issued its scathing report, the city police union was back in the news for fighting one cop’s firing, arguing, according to Cleveland.com, that “officers cited in the other cases [mentioned] have committed assaults, domestic violence, theft, felony offenses, untruthfulness, and other violent crimes, and have been allowed to keep their jobs with the city.”     

Dettelbach, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, told reporters that the agreement announced Tuesday would be a nationwide model for police reform. Indeed, it is filled with requirements that Cleveland must now implement—from creating local and citywide civilian oversight panels, to retraining officer against explicit and implict biases, to retraining officers on the use of force and tracking when force is used, to creating new protocols to dealing with the mentally ill instead of throwing them in jail.

Many of these reforms are what civil rights groups have been calling for. It will be telling to see what changes. Gupta, the DOJ’s top civil rights prosecutor, said she wants a federal court to get started immediately. But if Cleveland’s past record is any indication of what may follow, it is likely to take years for systemic change to take hold—if it does at all.     

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